Caseload doesn't include politics; Prosecutor O'Connor finds key to longevity


The day Sandra A. O'Connor was sworn in for her seventh term as Baltimore County state's attorney, her staff surprised her with a slide show displaying an artifact from her political past -- a campaign bumper sticker from the last time she actually had a political opponent.

That bumper sticker is 12 years old. O'Connor, entering her 25th year as the county's top prosecutor, is Maryland's senior state's attorney, seemingly immune to political challenge at a time when prosecutors nationally are at the mercy of the electoral winds.

The gregarious prosecutor with a candid manner made it an early priority to aggressively prosecute rapists and domestic violence offenders, and started the state's first program to counsel relatives of murder and domestic violence victims.

Her most debated policy has been to seek the death penalty in every eligible murder case, giving Baltimore County more convicted murderers on death row than any jurisdiction in the state.

O'Connor's roster of alumni prosecutors reads like a Who's Who of Maryland's top lawyers -- six judges, a federal magistrate, the state prosecutor, the Howard County state's attorney and Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger.

After a quarter-century, she still gets a "good feeling when you are able to right a wrong."

"This is one of the few jobs where you not only represent the people but you're expected to do it with the highest amount of integrity and honesty. And the people you represent are not only the general public, but those who have been unjustly hurt by someone else," she said.

O'Connor has kept her job as a Republican in a Democratic county without staying in the public eye by trying high-profile cases. She hasn't tried a case in six years, choosing to let her staff do the job.

"I truly believe you don't belong in the courtroom. You do it for the press, and that's the wrong reason, or for the ego, and that's equally a wrong reason," she said.

She retains the support of conservative voters who believe in the death penalty, as she does, and of juries and judges who are tough on criminals, as she is.

The chief prosecutor's post is "a very difficult job, and there is a tendency to burn out, but the flame has been going well for Sandy," said Newman Flanagan, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association in Alexandria, Va.

The secret to the 56-year-old O'Connor's staying power, say lawyers and politicians who know her, is that she runs her office in an apolitical manner.

"She's not a politician. That's why she's successful. She makes a prosecutorial decision without political motives," said Stephen Montanarelli, the state prosecutor and one of O'Connor's first deputies in the 1970s.

When O'Connor first took office, "she had no political background, no affiliation with the Republican Party," recalled Baltimore County Circuit Judge Dana M. Levitz, who was an assistant prosecutor under O'Connor and the first to be given the specific task of prosecuting rape cases in the 1970s and 1980s.

'Politically naive'

O'Connor is amused by her moxie in 1974, when at age 31, she asked Jervis S. Finney, then the Republican candidate for county executive, if she could run on his ticket.

"I was extremely politically naive. I went to see Jervis Finney," she recalled. "I remember him telling me, 'The Republican Party has $387,' so there would be no financial help. Instead of backing away, which would have been the smart thing to do, I decided to run."

Her motivation was simple, she says. She had more experience as a city prosecutor than the Democratic opponent likely to win the primary -- Clarence D. Long III, the son of a congressman with the same name.

In a stunning victory, O'Connor beat Long 2-to-1 in a county where Democrats outnumbered Republicans more than 3-to-1. She won the seat at a time when the Baltimore County Bar Association banned women from its ranks.

Since winning her first election, O'Connor has seen her office of prosecutors and support staff almost double in size to 46 lawyers.

Others say she keeps veteran prosecutors because she runs her office in a democratic way and gives her deputies independence.

Perhaps O'Connor's most high-profile stance has been seeking the death penalty in every case where the law applies.

Of the three executions since Maryland's 1978 death-penalty law was enacted, two of the men were convicted in Baltimore County. Of 15 people on death row, nine are from the county.

O'Connor also estimates that 60 percent of the state's death-penalty trials and convictions take place in Baltimore County.

She acknowledges she is the "Wicked Witch of the North" to death-penalty opponents, but says she has no "moral dilemma" about seeking death for alleged murderers also accused of other crimes, including rape.

"I feel some people, by their actions, give up their right to live in society. I think we have a good law. There's no joy in it," she said.

O'Connor also said her policy insulates her office from charges made elsewhere that the death penalty is sought more often for black defendants than for whites.

'Misuse of resources'

Her pursuit of all defendants eligible for the death penalty has a downside.

Sally C. Chester, an assistant public defender for 13 years, said she finds the policy a "misuse of resources for the judicial system. It is an enormous cost, not just a monetary cost, but an emotional cost. We certainly are not unsympathetic to families of the deceased, but the families of the accused suffer horribly."

Chester tempers her criticism by saying of the prosecutors she works opposite of in Towson's courtrooms: "If they prosecuted the O. J. Simpson case, there would have been a different result."

Pub Date: 2/15/99

A Feb. 15 article about the Baltimore County state's attorney erroneously stated the year the Baltimore County Bar Association first accepted women. The correct year was 1962. The Sun regrets the error.
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